Category Archives: Corporate Behavior

Good Intentions and Hidden Costs

Perhaps More Oversight Needed?

Producers of vegan and vegetarian goods like Alternative Baking Company claim that their products have a better environmental impact than non-vegan/vegetarian goods.  This is an understandable claim, particularly since the environmental impact of the meat industry is well-documented.  Indeed, vegan advocates in general claim that their lifestyle is better for the environment.  As ABC says on its cookie labels: “No single food choice has a farther-reaching and more profoundly positive impact on… the environment, and all of life on Earth than choosing vegan.”

However, this claim is potentially seriously misleading, if not outright wrong.  ABC’s cookies substitute animal oils (like butter), dairy, and eggs with palm oil.  To be sure, ABC now (since August 2013) uses palm oil certified by the RSPO, which is less destructive than the non-certified palm oil that is responsible for wiping out acres of Indonesia’s rainforest.

Firefighters spray water to burning palm oil trees in haze hit Dumai, in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photograph: Beawiharta/REUTERS

But this does not let RSPO off the hook.  Third-party certification like RSPO is primarily a market tool: certifiers and producers have an incentive to get as many people certified as possible, even if it means watering down the stringency of this certification scheme.  And, according to Greenpeace and the Guardian, that is exactly what is happening.  RSPO plantations in Indonesia and Brazil (where ABC sources their oil) are still engaged in rampant deforestation and have contributed to “significant deforestation” in certified areas.  As you can imagine, deforestation in countries like Indonesia and Brazil have tremendous environmental impacts, ranging from a loss in biodiversity, to displacement of rural inhabitants, to land degradation and deforestation, and – of course – increased GHG emissions.

So what’s the upshot?  First, this idea that a vegan/vegetarian diet is somehow, intrinsically, better for the environment is simply not true.  A diet based on the exploitation of pristine rainforest is far worse than a diet based on the consumption of locally-sourced, sustainable animal products.  Second, third party certification should be scrutinized very carefully.  Third party certification is foremost a business model, and like all business models, the primary incentive is to make profits in a defined market.  This is not to say that it can’t lead to better environmental practices, but this is not a necessary outcome, and should not be assumed.

For ABC (and other companies that use RSPO certified palm oil), their choices are clear: either 1) do better research and use vegan oils that are less environmentally problematic than RSPO palm oil; 2) stop assuming that “vegan” = “environmentally good,” and use more sustainable oils, even if they come from animal products; 3) continue using RSPO oil, but remove all claims that this has a “profoundly positive impacts on… the environment.”

In Search of a Socialist Lorax

He Speaks for the Trees

I just read The Lorax to my kids again (and did funny voices to boot, which made my wife visibly cringe).  Everytime I do, however, I think about this really stellar and well-written article by Maniates called “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?”

The article itself – very accessible, especially for an academic piece – gives a great description of an underlying problem in an otherwise sweet little book.  (And I specifically set up storytime with this book to encourage the kids to take care of the earth).  The short version (read the whole thing!) is that Seuss’ fable presents the solution to environmental crises as occurring through the aggregate of individual action.  In other words, if committed people can motivate themselves to plant trees, take care of them, and make the right purchases, the world will get better.  Noticeably absent from Seuss’ tale, however, are things like polluter pays laws, and regulations that would have stopped the Once-ler from destroying the Truffula forest in the first place – or at least held him legally and financially responsible after he did.

Not picking on Seuss, though.  It’s a nice book.  But we should be aware that individual action, especially in a market economy, will only have very limited effect on systematic environmental and political problems.  In the meantime, enjoy the video:

Ghosts of the Green Revolution

I’m not hating on Norman Borlaug.  His innovations in improving the yield of agricultural crops through genetic modification and cross-breeding have undoubtedly contributed to curbing hunger and malnutrition in under-consuming countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Totally not hating! Look at that smile

But the Green Revolution he inspired has left behind a toxic legacy.  In order to support the new breeds of plants produced, the agricultural industry produced hundreds of thousands of tons of pesticides a year through the 1950s, 60s, and onward.  Unfortunately, it turned out that many of these pesticides contained/contain toxins and persistent organic pollutants.  Things like lindane, aldrin, dieldrin, chlordane, heptachlor, and DDT – carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, bioaccumulators.

While, to the international society’s credit, we did manage to ban the production and use of many of these chemicals through instruments like the Stockholm Convention, we are left with tens of thousands of tons of these compounds, idling in sometimes poorly stored containers worldwide.  Africa alone has 50,000 tons of these now obsolete pesticides, which have occasionally been unintentionally released into communities by leaks and poor disposal practices.

Fortunately, through the help of funds by the World Bank, and with the support of the Stockholm Convention, the international society is starting to get rid of these pesticides in a reasonably safe manner, but this should introduce a note of caution in the rapid industrial production of poorly tested compounds.

What are We Doing to Ourselves?: The Ubiquity of Chemicals

I suppose this was inevitable.  Yesterday was Saturday, and being in  the Yucatán, with no interviews lined up for today, my options were 1) hang around the hostel, and continue working on my paper via notepad and pencil (taking it back to ’92, y’all), or 2) go to the beach.  Only a madman would have chosen number 1.

The Obvious Choice

So: I took a shared taxi to Puerto Juárez, then a $7 ferry to Isla Mujeres.  Lovely beach on Playa Norte – you can walk out 100m, and never have the absolutely crystal water go further than chest high.  But here’s the thing: this is a highly touristic zone, and the sun-sensitive visitors to Mexico also take this ferry all day for sand-and-beach.  I happen to be highly allergic to oxybenzone, one of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen, and all it takes is one brush against, say, a deck chair recently used by a Coppertone-slathered individual, for me to break out in rashes, itching, and suppurating swelling (helpfully alleviated right now by very, very high doses of Benadryl – which also has the side effect of making me high as a kite).

Now, I’ve thought a lot about oxybenzone over the years, having had multiple reactions and exposures to it, despite my best efforts to avoid it (I once unwittingly shared a straw with an amiga that used an oxybenzone-laden chapstick and came off looking like Mick Jagger), and have focused on two things that I find interesting/aggravating.  First, as many of you will find out, it is found in a wide, wide range of cosmetic products – look at anything that has the letters SPF on it, and chances are it has oxybenzone, or its relative, benzophene-3.  Second, it is an endocrine disruptor (see above link).  Now, it’s not the only way to get sunscreen; you can use anything that has inert chemicals, such as titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide and get much, much better coverage.  Problematically, the metallic sunblock is oldschool, and leaves a faint, whitish layer on your skin when you brush it on.  Not very stylish, yeah?  Plus, I am sure that the vast, vast majority of users are completely unaware that oxybenzone is harmful, not just to myself, but to all users, in particular infants and small children.

Spraying DDT in the United States

But this I thought was symptomatic of one of the major challenges to human health: we are surrounded by potentially harmful chemicals every day, ostensibly in the name of convenience.  Eventually, we learn about them, but often only after concerted action against the inertia, apathy, and perhaps active resistance of those who receive some benefits from distributing them.

While we, as an international community, have eventually responded to some of these concerns, banning some harmful but ubiquitous products at the domestic level in the 1970s and 1980s, and by internationalizing the campaign against toxic substances through instruments such as the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, it is still clear that in many ways, our attitudes towards dangerous chemicals hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.  The types of chemicals and products vary, and over time, awareness-raising leads to some civil society challenges to particular compounds, but toxins remain profitable, and information moves more slowly than commerce: hence, the continued ubiquity of harmful chemicals.

Engineering Solutions

ICE to see you!

Now that we know that the only thing coming out of the recent COP-17 at Durban is an agreement to agree in the future, and the Zombie Protocol, the question becomes: what are nations going to do to address climate change?  In a move straight out of a Schumacher film, Mongolia is planning to engineer ice shields to keep their capital city, Ulaanbaatar cool – particularly since Mongolia has warmed 3x faster than the rest of the world on average.

While this may or may not work (and it’s very doubtful that it will), it’s somewhat unfortunate that Mongolia, with a mere 15.6 million tons of CO2e (PDF), or 3 million tons per capita is both a tiny contributor to global warming, and particularly vulnerable to the changes already being observed worldwide.  Moreover, while climate mitigation is almost certainly something that countries should be investing in, engineering solutions to global warming is only a small and potentially problematic response to the emerging crisis.

Approaches like this, or other, more complex geoengineering solutions such as (seriously) space mirrors – contemplated by the UN and IPCC, no less – are flawed in that they 1)  take away attention from the root causes of the problem, by not addressing underlying consumption (indeed, they make it easier for richer societies to continue consuming, as long as they pay their way in technological solutions); 2) may cause environmental problems of their own – particularly in doing things like (again, seriously) dumping iron in the ocean; 3) in the words of David Attenborough (yes, THE David Attenborough), are “fascist” – they place too much power in the hands of rich nations.  I mean, controlling the weather is something straight out of a bad science fiction movie.  We’ll keep an eye on things, but hopefully we’ll spend more time investing in ways to cut consumption, rather than punting it down the road.  In the mean time, enjoy these chilling puns!

Thanks for the Shout Out

Worth, Literally, Millions of Dollars!

Wow, this is flattering: my blog has been listed as a useful resource tracking the Durban climate talks.  This plug provided on the Forest Carbon Portal, a website run by the Ecosystem Marketplace, a research organization dedicated to analyzing the benefits of marketizing ecosystem services, including biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water.  As indicated, their primary goal is to help “…give value to environmental services that, for too long, have been taken for granted.”

They have a wealth of information on forest and carbon markets, including work on REDD.  Check their site out, see what you think, or see the new links provided to their reports in the Research and Resources tab.

Is This Progress?

One Tiny Step Forward…

If you’ve been following the Keystone XL Pipeline development, you probably heard two things that seem like positive environmental developments.  First, the corporation behind the development of the project, agreed to reroute the planned pipe such that it will no longer run through the Nebraska Sand Hills region.  Potentially good news for Nebraskan environmentalists, ranchers, conservationists, who raised concerns about the impact of subterranean oil on the Ogallala aquifer, described as “…a massive subterranean waterway that underlies 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.”

Nebraskan Rancher in the Sand Hills



Second, the Obama administration and the State Department recently announced that the project would be sent back for review, citing the environmental and socioeconomic considerations raised by the specter of continued oil dependency and dirty extraction.

…And One Giant Leap Back

However, any optimism about these developments should be severely tempered.  While the guaranteed protection of the Ogallala aquifer is a good thing, the obvious question that emerges is, why were they threatened in the first place?  Moreover, a careful examination of the State Department’s announcement on the Pipeline clearly indicates that the delay 1) is primarily to find a less contentious route for the proposed oil; 2) times the final decision-making such that the policy will be determined after the election.  A more cynical person than I would suggest that Obama is primarily trying not to alienate his remaining progressive-environmentalist constituency, while intending to go ahead with it anyway.  But, if the next President is a Republican, well, the possibility of the Pipeline becomes a certainty.

An Eminently Reasonable Man

Take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue: obviously, you have industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute stating that the Pipeline will create “…thousands of jobs almost immediately,” something that has to be a concern for Obama given his poll figures as of late.

More colorfully, Rick Perry has pointed out that our dependence on foreign oil, much of it produced by nationalized companies in countries such as Saudia Arabia, places American troops and security at risk.  We strengthen hostile regimes, because we fill up our SUVs with their product.  (Ironically, this is an argument made by environmentalists for reducing oil consumption – inimical to the Keystone XL).

Something Else to Keep in Mind

In any case, despite the superficial progress, there are a plethora of well-reasoned objections, on clearly stated environmental grounds, to the project as a whole – not just the proposed expansion through the Sand Hills.  In the Colbert Report, Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben critiques the whole idea of the project.

Adding Insult to Injury: the First Nations and Injustice

One final point: while McKibben’s argument is sound, it seems as if there was not enough time on the Report to get into one of the more troubling aspects (to me) of the whole production of the Keystone.  Even if we were guaranteed that the transit of oil were safe in the US, oil extraction is severely problematic for the people who live near the tar sands: indigenous and First Nations peoples.

As can be seen in this report by the NRDC (TarSandsInvasion-full [PDF]), the extraction of oil from tar sands is immensely hazardous to the local ecosystems upon which indigenous people depend.  Air pollution, and the seepage of toxins into groundwater, aquifers, and local ecosystems have led to high rates of cancer, asthma, acid rain, and the accumulation of toxins such as cyanide and ammonia.  Not surprisingly, and as is the case in the US, indigenous people in Canada are at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.  It is important to keep in mind, when we think about environmental problems, that some populations are more vulnerable than others.  Thinking about the Keystone XL (and other environmental issues) should raise questions, not just about consumption, local ecosystems, and wellbeing – but also about demographics and social identity.  Who benefits?  Who loses?  Do certain populations lose more?  In so doing, we should oppose environmentally harmful projects, not just on the basis of ecological concerns, but also on the basis of human rights, justice, and socioeconomic equity.

Corporate Personhood: Can it Work for Environmental Justice?

Corporations, Like Soylent Green, Are People

For many, the 2010 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC (PDF)  seemed like a further step in the reification of corporations.  Briefly, the decision held that it was unconstitutional to restrict the political speech of corporations (read: spending on political campaigns), as doing so violated the First Amendment rights of persons within the United States – the underlying assertion is that corporations are legal persons.  Critics pointed out that the norm of corporate personhood – giving corporate entities legal rights equivalent to those of ordinary citizens – would likely mean the concentration of political power in the hands of corporate CEOs and the wealthy.  Well, it turns out that, in addition to empowering them, the norm of corporate personhood may be used to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

Background: Environmental Injustice and Shell in Nigeria

In the 1990s, oil exploration in Nigeria was a travesty of environmental injustice.  In the Nigerian Delta, the practice of extraction was incredibly dirty – oil spills, and gas flaring devastated the local environment, and displaced residents.  Moreover, the federal government of Nigeria monopolized the control of national oil wealth, giving a disproportionately low share to the residents of states in which oil exploration was taking place.

To make matters worse, Shell, seeking to maintain oil extraction, facilitated the displacement and murder of residents of the Delta region, largely of the Ogoni tribe.  As indicated in this book excerpt (PDF), Shell contractors bulldozed farmland and houses in order to gain access to oil-producing land.  When people protested, they were shot by the Nigerian army.  When they protested those shootings, they were shot.  When they blocked the community to further oil exploration, the Nigerian army and police went to ‘dialogue’ with the community, and they were shot.  In these instances, army and police officers were paid field allowances by Shell, who later wrote to “reiterate our appreciation for the excellent co-operation we have received from the Nigerian Police Force in helping to preserve the security of our operations.”  This pattern continued until several people were killed, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet, author, television personality, and environmental activist.

Hold Them Accountable

In response, a transnational coalition of Ogoni people and American legal advocacy agencies sued Shell, starting in the 1990s, for complicity in these atrocities.  Here’s the kicker: they cited a two centuries old law, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows aliens to sue in federal district courts for “…a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”  A decade and a half later, the case seemed to stall, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the charges, asserting in a majority opinion that, despite the clear violation of human rights law, and despite the seriousness of the claims, corporations could not be considered “juridical persons (PDF)” when it became time to hold them accountable for their actions. 

However, on October 16th, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on appeal.  At the heart of it, this case raises the question of whether corporations can have the rights of citizens without their corresponding responsibilities.  Obviously, the most optimistic outcome, and one which we will find out next year after the case is concluded, is that the SCOTUS finds that corporations are, in fact, liable for human rights violations – that at least would indicate some conceptual consistency among the conservative branch.  If, however, they find that Shell is not liable, as non-juridical persons under international law, it may expose the hypocrisy and emptiness at the core of the idea of corporate rights.